Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sermon for July 29th: John 6:1-21

Soul Food

One of the great success stories of publishing in recent years has been a series of books entitled Chicken Soup for the Soul. These books had their beginning in the work of two motivational speakers, Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. Canfield and Hansen were in the habit of sprinkling their motivational talks with a liberal dose of inspirational stories, and many people in their audiences suggested to them that they should publish these stories. Eventually they decided to act on this suggestion and they collected 101 stories for publication. The original title came from Jack Canfield’s grandmother, who apparently claimed that her homemade chicken soup would cure anything!

The manuscript of Chicken Soup for the Soul was refused by over a hundred publishing houses before it was eventually accepted by Health Communications, Inc. It was published in June 1993, and by Christmas had become a huge favourite. By April 1994 it was at the top of all the bestseller lists in the United States and Canada, and it went on to win many awards including the prestigious American Booksellers Book of the Year award. The original book has since given birth to many children with names like Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or the Fisherman’s Soul and so on. Altogether there have been 65 titles which have been published in 37 languages and have sold 80 million copies.

So I think it’s safe to say that in our culture we instinctively understand the idea of a hungry soul! We understand that it’s not just our bodies that need food, but our minds and hearts as well. And junk food won’t do – we need deep nourishment from something wholesome and solid.

Many people today are painfully aware that they are not finding that nourishment. They feel a deep spiritual hunger, and are longing to find something to alleviate it. This spiritual hunger is the theme of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which we will be reading in our lectionary over the next five weeks.

The chapter starts, in today’s reading, with two miracle stories – the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus’ walking on the water to meet his disciples in the middle of a storm on the lake. But John follows on with an extended theological dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, in which he brings out the meaning of what Jesus has just done – what it says to us about who Jesus is and how he can satisfy our spiritual hunger. Today we’ll look at the two miracle stories – though not without a glance at their theological meaning! Starting next week we’ll be gradually going through the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees in the rest of the chapter.

These two miracle stories take place in the vicinity of the lake of Galilee. A large crowd has been following Jesus, but they’ve got an ulterior motive; they want to be healed, or to see some more amazing healings. On the whole, John’s Gospel takes a dim view of this motivation: the writer seems to think that the people were looking for something sensational, rather than genuinely seeking God. But still, Jesus has compassion on them and decides to satisfy their physical hunger. So he asks Philip, “Where are we going to get enough bread to feed all these people?” and Philip replies, “I dunno – six months’ wages wouldn’t do it!” Andrew does a little better; he points out a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish, “But what good are they among all these people?”

So Jesus gets everyone to sit down, takes the five loaves and two fish, gives thanks to God and starts giving them out. Miraculously, they multiply, and everyone has enough to eat, just like in time of Moses when God fed the people in the desert with manna and quails. Jesus underlines the point of God’s generosity by sending his disciples around with baskets to pick up the leftovers, and there is so much left that they fill twelve baskets full.

Now the crowd gets really excited. In the Old Testament Moses had promised that God would send his people another prophet like him to lead them; he said, ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet’ (Deuteronomy 18:15). And now in today’s story we have the crowd saying, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (v.14). No doubt they were making connections between the way their ancestors had been fed in the desert through Moses and the way Jesus had just fed them. And the next verse is even more dramatic; Jesus realises that they are about to take him by force and make them their king. What a great thing it would be for them, instead of having a king who gouged them with taxes, if they had a king who gave them free food every day instead! But Jesus would have none of it; he immediately withdrew to a mountain by himself.

That crowd is going to meet Jesus again on the next day, but before they do, John adds a little ‘P.S.’ to the story. For some reason – we aren’t told why – the disciples leave Jesus on that side of the lake and cross over toward Capernaum without him. A storm blows up during the night as they are crossing. During the night they see a shadowy shape on the water, following them; it looks human, but it is walking on the water, which they know is impossible. No doubt the first word in their mind was the word you would think of in that situation: ‘ghost’. But as it gets closer, they see that it is Jesus. However, they are still terrified, and we can understand why; this is completely outside their experience! Who on earth can this be? But Jesus answers that question. The NRSV translates his answer like this: ‘It is I; do not be afraid’, but the Greek says this: ‘I am; do not be afraid’. John has taken advantage of a little idiom in the original language, where the Greek words ‘ego eimi’, which literally mean, ‘I am’, can also mean colloquially ‘It’s me!’ But remember that in the Old Testament God gave himself a name: ‘Yahweh’, which means ‘I am’. It’s not an accident that John has Jesus using this name for himself. Many things in John’s gospel have a double meaning, and that double meaning is almost always intentional.

Right – so what does this all mean for us today, in 2012, living in our homes and working our jobs and, deep down inside, trying to find a way of satisfying our spiritual hunger?

The crowd in this story made two mistakes: they thought they knew what their most important needs were, and so they used categories to think about Jesus that would lead to him meeting those needs for them. They thought their most important need was bread, and so Jesus must be the prophet like Moses, the one who had given their ancestors bread from heaven in the wilderness. Or again, they thought they needed a leader to deliver them from the Roman oppressors and their puppet king, Herod, and so they thought Jesus must be a political and military leader who would set them free.

We do the same thing today. We think we know what our most important needs are, so we choose ways of thinking about Jesus to make him fit those needs. Perhaps we feel we want counselling for our problems, so we see Jesus as a pop psychologist handing out warm fuzzies to all and sundry. Or we need a nice comfortable religion that won’t offend anyone, so we make him a great religious teacher, on a level with others like Muhammad or Confucius or Moses.

But our ways of thinking about Jesus are completely inadequate. Jesus has his own agenda, based on the categories he claims for himself. There are two of them in this passage, and they are both very shocking, both to his original hearers and to us. Let’s take a look at them.

First: ‘I AM’, says Jesus; ‘don’t be afraid’. Jesus uses this name of God for himself many times in John’s Gospel, and each time he will make it a little more explicit. A couple of chapters later, he is having a controversy with the Pharisees, and they accuse him of making himself out to be greater even than Abraham. Jesus willingly accepts the charge: “Very truly I tell you”, he says, “before Abraham was, I am”.

So this is who we’re dealing with here: not just a great religious teacher or a king like David, but the living God who has come among us in Jesus. And if that’s the case, it’s no use us trying to enlist him in our own personal agendas and our own little wars. Jesus won’t go along with that. I’m reminded of the words of one of the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard the Ent; the hobbits Merry and Pippin ask him whose side he’s on, and he replies, “I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because no one is altogether on my side!” I suspect that’s the sort of thing God in Christ might say to us as well.

But because God has come among us in Jesus, he can claim a second category for himself later on in this chapter: in 6:35 he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. He will use shocking language to illustrate this, talking about people ‘chewing’ his flesh and drinking his blood. Two thousand years of Christian worship lead us to immediately conclude that Jesus is talking about Holy Communion here, but John does not explicitly refer it to Holy Communion, although he must have known that his hearers would make the connection. In fact, John doesn’t even mention Holy Communion in his story of the Last Supper. But he tells us what he means by ‘eating the flesh’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of Jesus: he has Jesus saying, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. To come to him, and to believe in him, is to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Jesus, who is ‘I am’, is essential to eternal life, just as food and drink are essential to this present life – and the way to satisfy our spiritual hunger is to come to him and believe in him.

Of course, receiving communion is one way that we do this. When we step out of our seats, come forward and hold out our hands, we are indeed ‘coming to him’ and ‘believing in him’ – at least, if we’re doing it truly, and not just by rote. But that doesn’t exhaust the meaning of these words of Jesus. There are many other ways of coming to him and believing in him, too – by committing our lives to him, by turning to him in prayer, by chewing on his words and putting them into practice in our lives, and so on.

Toward the end of his gospel, John says this:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).

In other words, John is writing as an evangelist. He doesn’t just want to give us information this morning; he wants to give us life. We may be alive biologically, but we may not yet have found that truer and deeper life that God wants to give us. How are we going to find that life? The feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water show us the way, because they tell us who Jesus is. ‘I am; do not be afraid’. In Jesus God has come among us, and just as he satisfied the hunger of the five thousand, so he can satisfy our spiritual hunger too. He is the bread of life; if we are hungry and thirsty, we’re told to come to him and put our trust in him.

So today as you come to Holy Communion, let me invite you to come to the one who is not just a prophet or a counselor or a great religious teacher, but the one who John describes in the first chapter of his gospel when he says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:1, 14). “I am”, he says to us; “Do not be afraid”. So let’s get up out of our seats and come to him, and stretch out our hands to receive the bread and wine, putting our faith in the one who tells us “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). “Oh taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

Friday, July 27, 2012

August 2012

DATE  August 5th, 2012 10th Sun. after Pentecost w/ Bishop Jane
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople:            The Schindels
Counter:D. Schindel/D. Sanderson
Reader:  R. Goss
(Readings: 2Samuel 11: 26 – 12.13a, Psalm 51: 1 – 13, Ephesians 4: 1 - 16)
Lay Administrants: D. Schindel
Intercessor:  Bishop J. Alexander
Lay Reader: Unavailable   (John 6: 24 – 35)
Altar Guild (green) M. Lobreau/P. Major
Kitchen: - 9:45 am: B. & M. Woytkiw
Music: M. Chesterton

DATE  August 12th, 2012  11th Sun. after Pentecost w/ D. MacNeill & B. Popp
Greeter/Sidespeople:            T. Willacy/B. Cavey
Counter:T. Willacy/L. Schindel
Reader:  D. Schindel
(Readings:  2Samuel 18:5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33, Psalm 130, Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2)
Intercessor: B. Popp
Lay Reader:B. Popp  (John 6: 35, 41 – 51)
Altar Guild (green): MW/MW
Kitchen:  D. Molloy
Music:            R. Mogg

DATE  August 19th, 2012 12th Sun. after Pentecost
Greeter/Sidespeople:            The Aasens
Counter: C. Aasen/S. Jayakaran
Reader:  A. Jayakaran
(Readings:  1Kings 2: 10 – 12; 3: 3 – 14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5: 15 - 20)
Lay Administrants: E. Gerber/D. MacNeill
Intercessor:  M. Rys
Lay Reader: D. MacNeill  (John 6: 51 – 58)
Altar Guild (green)J.Mill/L.Schindel
Prayer Team: M. Chesterton/M. Rys
Kitchen: A. Shutt
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

DATE  August 26th, 2012 13th Sun. After Pentecost
Greeter/Sidespeople:            A. Shutt/ T. Cromarty
Counter:A. Shutt/ T. Cromarty
Reader: S. Jayakaran
(Readings: 1Kings 8: (1,6, 10 - 11), 22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephisians 6: 10 – 20)
Intercessor:T. Chesterton
Lay Reader:  L. Thompson  (John 6: 56 – 69)
Altar Guild (green):MW/MW
Kitchen:  B. Cavey
Music:            M. Chesterton
Altar Servers: A. Jayakaran

July 30th - August 5th, 2012

July 30th – Aug 1st, 2012  Office is closed.
Aug. 5th, 2012   10th Sunday after Pentecost
9:00 am Holy Communion with Bishop Jane Alexander
10:30 am Holy Communion with Bishop Jane Alexander

Friday, July 20, 2012

July 23 - 29, 2012

July 23rd, 2012  Office is closed.

July 29th, 2012   9th Sunday after Pentecost

9:00 am Holy Communion
10:30 am Holy Communion

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

This Week at St. Margaret's - July 16th-22nd

July 16th, 2012  Office is closed.

July 17th, 2012
11:15am  Holy Communion at St. Joseph’s Hospital

July 22nd, 2012   8th Sunday after Pentecost
9:00 am Holy Communion
10:30 am Holy Communion

Advance notice: Sunday September 30th is 'Back to Church Sunday' in the Diocese of Edmonton and in many other places around the world. The focus of 'Back to Church Sunday' is for ordinary Christian people to invite non-churchgoing friends and family members to join them for worship on that day. We will structure the services in such a way as to make them more accessible for people who are unfamiliar with them, and we hope to have a few members of the congregation share their own faith stories at sermon time.

Now is the time to think about your friends and family members and ask God to guide you about who you should invite to join us for worship on that Sunday. If everyone invited someone, and they all came, we would double the size of our congregation on that day! But the important number is not 'How many people came?' but 'How many members of our church stepped out in faith and courage and invited someone, whether that person came or not?' Be one of the ones who said 'Yes!' to God's call; invite someone to 'Come and see!'

'Unconditional? The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness' by Brian Zahnd. 
A St. Margaret's book study group: ten Tuesday evenings beginning September 25th If Christianity is to be a compelling and relevant voice in the 21st Century, it needs a fresh message - not a new innovation or novel interpretation, but a return to our roots. And what are our roots? To a certain extent that is what this book is about. If Christianity is not about forgiveness, it's about nothing at all. In this book readers will be confronted with the stark reality of how deeply we need to reach within to really show Christ-like forgiveness and mercy to those to whom we may feel least inclined to offer forgiveness or mercy. The author's primary motive in writing this book is to help recover the true beauty of Christianity as found in forgiveness. We are a church in need of a renovation, a renovation that the author is convinced can be achieved by a recovery of the beautiful Christian gospel of forgiveness. In a world where the ugliness of rage and retaliation are driving the storyline of the 21st century, the beauty of authentic Christian forgiveness is the compelling alternative. This book begins with the Holocaust as it explores what forgiveness means and how far it should go in the real world of murder, rape, child abuse, genocide, and other atrocities. It pushes the reader beyond the usual biblical exposition of the topic of forgiveness and challenges their thinking by juxtaposing absolutely bottom-line kinds of examples with the simple question: What would you do?

Call or email Tim to register for this group, or sign up on the table in the foyer.

You will need to order your copy of the book as soon as possible (it is easily available online from Amazon or Chapters Indigo). If you don't have Internet service contact Tim and he will order a copy for you.

Sermon for July 15th: Mark 6:14-29

The Challenge of Costly Discipleship

It will be thirteen years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of this parish of St. Margaret. It was a memorable interview in many ways, but one thing I especially remember was a question I was asked by Murray Tait, who was the People’s Warden at the time; some of you here will remember Murray and his wife Diane, who were very active members of this congregation and now live in Calgary. As near as I can remember it, Murray’s question went something like this: ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’

Preachers often have difficulty with that question – after all, we are dependant on our congregation to pay our salaries, and it can be so tempting just to tell people what they want to hear! And yet we know that passing on the challenge of Jesus is also an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus will not always come across as good news, especially when he calls us to leave sinful ways behind and put God’s word into practice in our daily lives. How do we react to that challenge? Today’s gospel tells us about two people who were challenged by God’s message, and how they reacted to it.

Let’s recap the story for a minute. First, who are these main characters? Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, who tried to get the wise men to lead him to the baby Jesus in the Christmas story. Our Herod is his son, Herod Antipas; Herod the Great had divided his kingdom between his sons, and Antipas got Galilee, where Jesus was brought up.

There are two things you need to know about Herod Antipas. First, he was a puppet king; he kept his throne because it suited the Romans to have him there. Because of this, keeping the peace with Rome was always a priority for him. But secondly, like his father, he really wanted the people he ruled to recognise him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews at all – they were Idumeans, and this was one of the reasons they were very unpopular with the people of Judea. After all, how could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people, the Jews?

The choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation, either. Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip; Herod had met her at his brother’s house, and the two had become infatuated with each other and had left their previous spouses to marry each other. It isn’t entirely clear whether or not a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and there was a lot of controversy at that time about the proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife. It’s fair to say that a large segment of the population saw Herod and Herodias as living in sin – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King.

This was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist, you see. Our text says that ‘John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”’ (v.18). We shouldn’t understand from this that John and Herod had enjoyed a quiet fireside chat over a glass of wine, discussing Herod’s matrimonial woes! No – when it says ‘John had been telling Herod’, it means, ‘telling in public, in his sermons’. And if John was saying this about Herod’s ‘marriage’ to Herodias, the people would have understood him to be denying that Herod could be God’s true anointed king – which, of course, would have been an act of sedition and treason on John’s part. At this point, as a ruler interested in keeping his throne, Herod had to arrest John.

But now comes the curious twist: Herod had a soft spot for John, too! In fact, he was more than a little afraid of him, knowing that ‘he was a righteous and holy man’ (v.20). Even more curiously, we read that Herod ‘liked to listen to (John)’ (v.20). It sounds as if there was an internal struggle going on in Herod; he was angry at what John was saying, and yet deep down he knew there was truth in the Baptist’s words.

But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a scheming woman, determined to get what she wanted, and she wanted the Baptist dead. A dance on Herod’s birthday gave her the opportunity to get what she wanted. Our NRSV translation opts for a minority reading of the text and identifies the dancer as ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’. However, this makes no sense; there is no evidence that Herod and Herodias had a daughter also called Herodias. The majority of the manuscripts identify the dancer as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ – presumably by her marriage to Philip; the Jewish historian Josephus gives her name as ‘Salome’. Herod, an impetuous man, was so infatuated with her dancing that he made a rash vow promising to reward her with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. This was Herodias’ opportunity; the girl asked for advice from her mother, and her mother had no hesitation about using her daughter as a pawn: she was to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. ‘The king was deeply grieved’, but felt bound by his oath, and so that was the end of the matter.

What can we learn about Christian discipleship from the three main characters in this story?

Let’s start with Herodias. Here is a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She is not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly.

Were her own personal insecurities fuelling her determination to have her own way? She knew that her marriage to Herod was doubtful in the eyes of the people, and she knew that Herod was hungry for their approval. She knew that he had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew that if Herod should choose to listen to John’s message, she stood to lose her marriage and her position as the wife of the Tetrarch of Galilee. You can imagine how she must have felt.

Of course, that’s often the way it is with bullies. They often have a deep-seated insecurity inside, an insecurity that they are determined not to reveal to anyone. And so they overcompensate for this; they come across as forceful personalities; if you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world is a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they are determined to be the winners every time.

The lengths to which Herodias was prepared to go in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for a young girl to be presented with the head of John the Baptist on a plate? But Herodias was quite prepared to put her daughter through this in order to get what she wanted. It seems that she saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so that she could get her own way.

Sad to say, this sort of thing is not unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think that Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try very hard to be kind to everyone, and so bullies can throw their weight around in a church for a long time before someone confronts them with their behaviour and challenges them to stop it.

And of course, if we are ever going to grow as Christians, we do have to stop it. Herodias saw herself as the lead actor in her own play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we are ever going to grow in the Christian life, we have to learn to take ourselves out of the centre of our own universe and give that place back to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.

So Herodias exemplifies the person who uses power to get what they want. But now let’s turn again to her husband, Herod Antipas. He’s a fascinating character! If ever there was a man with conflicted emotions, it was Herod! Deep down inside, he knew what was right, but over and over again he showed himself unable to do it.

It started with the arrest of John the Baptist. As I’ve said, as a shrewd politician he knew that if he was going to keep his throne he had to arrest John, but he seems to have felt guilty about the fact. He liked to listen to John! No doubt John talked about the things he’d always talked about – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the need for people to repent – to turn their lives around – so that they could get ready for that Kingdom. John had never shied away from spelling out specifics, and no doubt he continued to do so when he talked with Herod; no doubt he told Herod that it was wrong for him to have his brother’s wife. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think we should understand this to mean that he was ‘perplexed’ about what John meant. No one could miss John’s meaning! No, he was perplexed about his own response to the message he was hearing: would he obey it, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to actually do it.

And of course the same thing happened when Herodias’ daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. No doubt Herod saw immediately that he had been in the wrong in making such a rash oath, but he cared too much for the good opinion of those around him to retreat from it. Once again, he knew what he ought to do, but he did not do it.

Most of us Christians will recognise ourselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message – we do it here every Sunday - but we’re all ‘perplexed’ about putting it into practice. It seems so costly! It’s so hard to actually do the things Jesus says. Nonetheless, if we’re going to grow in our Christian lives, we have to face the fact that it isn’t enough just to ‘enjoy listening to’ the Christian message. Jesus told us that if we do that, we’re like a person who builds their house on the sand; the rains come and the floods rise and beat upon the house, and down it comes. Obedience in theory won’t help us build a life that can stand up when the storm comes; only obedience in practice will do the job.

So we have to be willing to take ourselves out of the centre of our own lives and commit ourselves to following God’s anointed king, Jesus. We have to be willing to put his teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And finally, we have to realise that doing this doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.

John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He had given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He had spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds of people responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He had pointed to Jesus, the true lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he had followed God’s call to speak the truth to people in worldly power, and he had come to a sticky end.

Mark, and the early Christians who read his gospel, did not see this as something strange. Mark wrote for Christians in Rome who were being savagely persecuted by the Emperor Nero. They understood that this was part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Two chapters later, Mark records Jesus as saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In all likelihood Jesus meant this saying literally; many of those who followed him would take up their crosses and go to the place of execution, just as he had. To be a Christian meant being unafraid to nail your colours to the mast, identify yourself publicly as a follower of Christ, and accept the consequences, whatever they might be.

Of course, we know that the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. A decade later, though, Herod was deposed from his throne by the Romans and ended his life in exile in Gaul, while John was already looked on as a hero of the growing Christian movement. Even more than that, as Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). John lives in glory today, and one day will be raised to live with Jesus forever, and I’m sure he has no doubt that he made the right decision. But when he was looking at the executioner’s axe, it can’t have been that easy.

So in this passage Mark is teaching us about the life of discipleship. To follow Jesus means laying aside our determination to have our own way and turning instead toward the way of obedience to Jesus, God’s anointed King. It means not just finding pleasure in listening to his message, but actually putting it into practice - making the hard decisions about our way of life as followers of Jesus. And we are not promised that this will be easy – in fact, we ought to expect that it will involve suffering for us in some way, as it did for Jesus and all his earliest followers. But we are assured, despite the suffering, that this is the right path for us to choose, and that if we do choose it, in the long run we will not regret it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sermon for July 8th: Mark 6:1-13

Are We Too Familiar With Jesus?

When families get together, sooner or later the legends start coming out. Perhaps one of the family members has done quite well for themselves in the world – made a real success of their career, or become a well-known local politician, or something like that. If that’s the case, it’s quite likely that at some point during the family gathering someone with a wicked sense of humour is going to say, “Do you remember that time when Jack did such and such?” Everyone will collapse in fits of laughter, the person in question will be suitably humiliated, and the family gathering will continue!

I have a story like that; it gets told about me sometimes when I meet with my Mum and Dad and my brother and other people who knew me ‘way back then’. The story concerns a time in my mid-teens when I was sent down to the local Laundromat to take some dry-cleaning to be done; it included stuff like the blazers and dress pants my brother and I had to wear for school uniform. Now, to be quite honest, at that time I was completely oblivious to the distinction between laundry and dry cleaning. And I must have been incredibly dense, too, because I never stopped to ask myself why my family would be sending me down to the Laundromat to do ordinary laundry, when we had a perfectly good washer and dryer at home. But anyway, I stuffed all those clothes that needed dry cleaning into the washer and dryer at the Laundromat, took them home proudly afterwards, and then experienced a rather spectacular family explosion. I didn’t do too badly out of it in the end; I got a new school blazer. My brother didn’t do quite so well, he got to wear my shrunken blazer, with black leather extensions to make the arms a tiny bit longer. I don’t think he’s ever forgotten that.

I expect that’s the sort of story the people of the village of Nazareth were remembering about Jesus when he came to preach in their synagogue:
‘They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3).
“This is just Mary’s boy? Do you remember the time when Joseph sent him to drop off a plough at Avram’s house, and he went dreaming his way through the field and dropped it off at Amminadab’s instead? Do you remember when he was little and he looked so cute? Do you remember the scrapes he got into? Too bad he’s gotten big ideas about himself now; I wonder where all that came from!”

In Mark’s story of Jesus, this passage comes at the end of a section that describes the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee. It started in chapter three, when Jesus chose the Twelve. Immediately following that, we had a story of how his immediate family were so worried by the things they were hearing about him that they came to take him home, because they were convinced he’d gone out of his mind. Then we had a chapter of parables, like the farmer scattering seed in his field, and a number of miracle stories, like the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the stilling of the storm on the lake. Now, at the end of the section, we’re back to the same two themes: the family of Jesus - who presumably know him best - don’t believe in him, but his disciples do believe in him, and he sends them out on a mission in which they are able to do some spectacular things because of their trust in him.

So the theme of faith and unbelief has been simmering all through this section of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is the farmer who is scattering the seeds of God’s message wherever he goes, but not all of them come up – in other words, not everyone hears with faith. The disciples and Jesus get caught in a storm on the lake; the disciples are afraid, but after Jesus stills the storm he says to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Jesus delivers a poor man from the power of evil spirits by casting the spirits out of him and into a herd of pigs. The pigs run off the cliff and drown in the lake, and immediately the people of the area beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood! Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood, who we heard about last week, are able to believe in Jesus and so to experience his healing power, but the people of Nazareth won’t believe, and as a result Jesus can’t do much to help them.

Let’s take a minute to look at little more closely at this. What does it mean to say that the people in Jesus’ hometown didn’t believe in him? What exactly were they saying about him? In a nutshell, it was this: “He’s nobody special! We’ve known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper; why does he suddenly think he’s better than we are?”

I want to suggest to you that this attitude to Jesus is alive and well in the contemporary world: “He’s nobody special!” Many of the people I meet in non-Christian circles feel the same way about Jesus. Some time ago I was having coffee with a friend and we got talking about the Christian message; my friend believes in God but he has no patience with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. “Christ makes much more sense to me when I think of him as a man”, he said.

I didn’t have time to give my friend an adequate response, but what I wanted to say was something like this: “You know, I have exactly the opposite experience. When I read the Gospels, it’s when I try to think of Jesus as just an ordinary man that he makes no sense to me at all!”

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus wasn’t just a sort of first century Yoda or Robert Fulgham, wandering around giving sage advice about how to live. Jesus actually believed strange things about what was happening through his ministry! Contrary to popular opinion today, the heart of Jesus’ preaching was not ‘love your neighbour as yourself’; rather, the heart of his preaching was an announcement that because he was present, the Kingdom of God was at hand.

In other words, Jesus believed that through his ministry God was at work in a unique way to set the world free from the dark forces of evil. He believed that God was working through him to establish a kingdom of justice and peace, in strong contrast to the kingdoms of exploitation and violence and injustice that everyone was so familiar with. And not only that, he believed some very strange things about his own coming death – which he apparently foresaw quite clearly. He said that he was going to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’, and that his blood was ‘the blood of the covenant’ – which was the sort of language Jewish people used when they offered animal sacrifices to atone for their sins.

Speaking of the things he said, what about this sort of stuff: “My friend, your sins are forgiven”? That’s a bit presumptuous, isn’t it? In Judaism there was a clearly defined way of receiving forgiveness for your sins: you went to the temple and you offered a sacrifice. Now here is Jesus acting and talking as if his presence makes the temple unnecessary! And, of course, that wasn’t the only strange thing he said. He claimed to be the one who had sent the prophets and preachers of the Old Testament. He said that if you had seen him, you had seen the Father. And so it goes on.

So what I wanted to say to my friend was this: ‘When I think of Jesus as just a man, he doesn’t become a good man in my mind: he becomes either a very bad man or a raving lunatic. Today, a man who was just a man and said and did the things Jesus said and did would have been locked up in a psychiatric ward. We certainly wouldn’t have trusted him as the pastor of a church; he was far too unbalanced for that!’

The people of Nazareth were correct, you see; if he really was just the hometown boy, and nothing more, then they were quite right not to be impressed with him. Religious fanatics were two a penny in those days; they arrived on the scene, and before too long they were put in their place, usually by the Romans.

So I want my friend to take the New Testament picture of Jesus seriously – to realise that if he’s just a man, then he makes no sense at all. He only makes sense if he’s more than just a man – if he’s a prophet, or even, dare I say it, the Son of God. If God has come among us in Jesus to show us the way, and to live and die for us, then Jesus makes sense. Of course he still challenges us, and turns our notions of what’s real and what’s not upside down - but then, if God is coming to us in him, we’d expect that, wouldn’t we?

But I can’t stop there. After all, this reading of the text is very comfortable for me, isn’t it? In this interpretation, I’m the faithful one, and my friend is one of the faithless Nazarenes who didn’t accept Jesus’ authority. But isn’t that a slightly inaccurate way of reading the text? After all, Jesus’ family members and fellow-Nazarenes were the ones who were close to him, weren’t they? The whole point of the story is that they were his people, his own flesh and blood: they ought to have been the ones who would recognise him and welcome him. But that’s exactly the opposite of what actually happened; as John says in his Gospel, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11).

Who are Jesus’ family today? Who are the ones who ought to be the closest to him? Surely it’s us, his Church? In Mark 3, when Jesus’ family came to take him away, we read that he looked around at the disciples and the people sitting listening to him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34b-35). So perhaps we need to ask the question, have we become too familiar with Jesus? Are we so comfortable with his story that we don’t see it for the dynamite that it really is?

Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God, an upside down kingdom where the little people would be honoured and the proud tyrants brought down. He taught his followers not to accumulate money and possessions, but to give generously to the poor and needy instead. He told them not to retaliate, but to love their enemies and do good to them, and to pray for those who hated them. He told them that the point of life wasn’t riches or success or popularity, but learning to love God with everything in them, and to love their neighbours as themselves. He told them to be a people who were known for their honesty and integrity. He reached out to the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the Samaritans – the people on the margins of society – and he taught his followers to do the same.

Why do we Christians so often miss all this? Why does our way of life so often bear so very little resemblance to the way Jesus taught us to live? Has familiarity bred contempt for us? Jesus was clear that he had come to show us the way, but it sometimes seems that in the past two thousand years we’ve been so busy building impressive churches for him that we’ve got no time to actually follow the way he showed us!

And what’s the result? In Mark 6 we read, ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them’. Isn’t that a rather strange sentence? I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I could lay my hands on a few sick people and heal them, I’d think of that as a pretty impressive deed of power! So what did Mark mean when he said that Jesus could do ‘no deed of power there’?

Here’s what I think he meant. The gospels are clear that Jesus’ miracles aren’t just a free version of modern medicare; they are also signs, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the kingdom comes in all its fulness, evil and sickness and injustice and death will be no more. The miracles point to that future reality.

What would have happened if the people of Nazareth had believed in Jesus? Would there just have been a lot more healings? No – the entire community would have been transformed. People with resentments would have forgiven each other. Rich people would have given away most of their wealth to people who didn’t have enough. Some impending divorce actions would have been cancelled. People would have stopped hating the Roman soldiers – the enemy army, that is - and started inviting them for meals in their houses. The whole community would have started practicing love and contentment and reconciliation and peace and justice. Now there’s a deed of power for you!

And here’s the tragedy of what we’ve often done to Christianity in the western world. Because of our lack of faith, we haven’t actually done the things that Jesus told us to do; we’ve tamed Christianity down, and the result is that all he can do is lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. In other words, yes, some people do come to church, and they are helped by what they find there, but the world is not transformed as Jesus had intended when he started his Kingdom revolution in the first place. The world stays pretty much the same.

So here’s the challenge of this text: we, the church, have often become like the Nazarenes in the time of Jesus. We think we know him so well, but we’ve dulled the sharp edges of his message and avoided the challenges. So this text is calling us to faith – real faith, faith that trusts Jesus so much that it follows his example and obeys his commands. When we do that, then Jesus is able to do the ‘deed of power’ he wants to do – transform the world into a place of compassion and justice, a place of reconciliation and peace.

So – have we, like the people of Nazareth, become too familiar with Jesus? We are the heirs to centuries of respectable establishment churchgoing; have they taught us to ignore the hard edges of Jesus’ teaching, because of course common sense tells us we can’t take that sort of thing too seriously in the real world? If so, maybe it’s time for us to take a fresh look at the gospels – ‘meeting Jesus again for the first time’, as one modern scholar puts it – and think about what he was really up to when he sent his followers out to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder says that the movement Jesus started was ‘the original revolution’ – a nonviolent revolution, yes, but a revolution nonetheless. Let’s not allow familiarity with Jesus to dull the sharp edges of that revolution in our lives. Let’s pray for the courage to truly believe in Jesus, and to show our belief by doing the things he taught us to do.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sermon for July 1st - Mark 5:21-43

He Touched Me and Made Me Whole

When I look around the church from where I stand on a Sunday morning, I must say I’m sometimes gripped by a sense of wonder. I find myself looking at all your faces and thinking, “Why are they all here? Why do they keep coming back each week? It’s amazing!” I know that years ago, going to church was ‘the done thing’, and if you didn’t go, you were somehow strange and suspect - but that’s not the case today! You folks come week by week because you want to, because you choose to come; you give generously and you work to help the ministries of our church. And that truly is a wonderful thing?

What is it that draws us all together week by week? What is it that we have in common, that is strong enough to overcome the many differences between us? Some of us were born in Canada, some were born in other cultures. Some of us were born in poor circumstances, some in wealthy. Some of us are ‘right’, and some of us are ‘left’. Some of us have been churchgoers all our lives, and some of us had no contact with the church at all when we were growing up. What other gathering could bring together such a diverse group of people and prompt them to build community together? Surely it’s a powerful testimony to the love and power of Jesus Christ. Some of us have a real sense of having been touched by Jesus in a way that has changed our lives; others of us are still searching for that touch. But wherever we are on our Christian journey, what we share in Jesus seems to be enough to draw us together week by week to worship in his name.

In the gospels, too, Jesus seems to attract a diverse group of people. In our Gospel story today, from Mark 5:21-43, we read about two completely different people who experienced his touch. One was a member of a prominent family in the religious establishment of Jesus’ day; the other was a woman who had probably been shunned by that establishment. But both were desperate, both came to Jesus for help, both received the help they were looking for, and both went away transformed.

Jesus and his disciples have been over on the east side of the Lake of Galilee. Now they come back across the lake, and immediately a large crowd gathers. One of the people in the crowd is Jairus, who we’re told is ‘one of the leaders of the synagogue’ (5:22) – in other words, a member of the religious establishment. The establishment is suspicious of Jesus, because he’s leading a Kingdom of God movement, and Kingdom of God movements usually lead to the Romans coming in and crushing the rebellion. The establishment wants to keep the peace with the Romans, so Jesus is bad news for them.

You see, Jairus is not naturally disposed to like Jesus! But then this new factor comes into the story – his little daughter is sick and at the point of death. Suddenly Jairus forgets all his hesitations about Jesus – he’s desperate, and desperation causes people to do what they have to do. So he comes to Jesus in the midst of a great crowd, all of whom probably know him as a respectable synagogue elder. He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him repeatedly to come and lay his hands on the little girl. Jesus agrees, and off they go together.

So far, so good. But now a new element enters the story. Jesus and the disciples are being followed by a huge crowd pressing in on them on every side. In that crowd is a woman who has been suffering from haemorrhaging for twelve years - the exact age of Jairus’ daughter! While Jairus and his wife have been enjoying their daughter, this woman has been desperately spending all the money she has on doctors to try to cure her, and none of it has done any good – in fact, she’s worse off. And this affliction, you see, would have made her ritually unclean under Jewish law; she had to stay away from public places, stay out of the synagogues, and anyone who touched her would be unable to enter the synagogue either.

She’s desperate, and so she risks going out in a crowd where she will touch people and risk their condemnation – and probably worse – if they recognise her. She’s even going to risk touching a rabbi and making him unclean. Probably she had to completely cover herself to avoid recognition. And she certainly didn’t want to risk a public conversation with Jesus where onlookers might recognise who she is. ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well’ (5:28). This is superstitious faith, but it is still faith. So she touches his cloak, and immediately she feels in herself that she has been made well.

But Jesus knows that healing power has gone out of him, and so he asks ‘Who touched me?’ – which seems a bit weird, given the closeness of the crowd! But he insists, and eventually, trembling with fear, the woman comes and kneels before him and tells the whole story. And he doesn’t condemn her as she feared; he reassures her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (5:34).

All through this we can imagine Jairus getting more and more agitated; he knows the situation at home and he’s desperate for Jesus to get there on time. And in fact his worst fears are realised; as Jesus is still speaking, messengers arrive to tell Jairus that it’s too late. His daughter has died, why bother the teacher any longer? Jesus, however, reassures him; ‘Do not fear; only believe’ (5:36).

When they get to the house, Jesus allows only Peter, James and John to come in with him. He sends away the professional mourners and the weepers and wailers. ‘The child isn’t dead’, he says; ‘only sleeping’ – and of course they laugh at him because they know she’s dead. But Jesus, his three disciples, and Jairus and his wife go in; Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand and speaks to her in words of Aramaic: ‘Talitha cum’ – ‘Little girl, get up!’ Immediately the girl gets up, and begins to walk around, and Jesus makes a practical suggestion: ‘Give her something to eat’.

What’s the Holy Spirit saying to us in this text this morning? Let me suggest a few things. First, I’m struck by how Jesus reaches out to people in all walks of life and all life situations. Some of those people are faithful church people, pillars of the congregation. Others are people who’ve been rejected by congregations and somehow seen as unclean. You might even wonder if this woman would be asking herself, “What have I done, that God hates me so much?” – people tend to ask those sorts of questions when they live with chronic illness.

So Jesus is reaching out to people in all situations – church people and non-church people, law-abiding people and people at the Remand Centre and the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, straight people and gay people, politicians and terrorists, police officers and drug dealers – God cares for all of them, and no one is outside the scope of his love. They’re all needy people, they can all come to God and ask for help, and Jesus’ actions here show that God is more than ready to reach out to them and make them whole.

From time to time, we all tend to think of ourselves as being outside the circle of God’s concern. In the movie ‘Almost an Angel’, Paul Hogan plays a bank robber who has a near-death experience; he believes that God has sent him back as an angel to touch the lives of others. At one point someone asks him to pray for them; he replies, “I will, but it might not do any good; last time I talked to God, he called me a scumbag!” And maybe we feel like that, too; “Why would God take an interest in someone like me?” But the text reassures us; God is happy to hear our prayer, and no one is left out of the circle of his love.

What does the touch of Jesus accomplish for us? In the time of Jesus the belief was that evil was contagious, so you avoided touching an unclean person because their uncleanness would contaminate you; you stayed away from the company of sinners, because their sinfulness would rub off on you. But Jesus seems to have operated on the opposite principle; he believed that goodness and wholeness were contagious. He touched an unclean person and made her clean; he went into the company of sinners and their lives were changed, not his.

He says to the woman, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease’ (v.34). Forgive me for using the original languages here, but the words are important. ‘Made well’ in Greek is ‘sozo’ which we often translate as ‘save’. In the Old Testament it often has a military connotation; God’s people are being threatened by an army far too big for them, but God intervenes and saves them. It often has this sense of ‘being delivered from a peril too big for us to handle’. And of course ‘peace’ in Hebrew is ‘shalom’ which means far, far more than the absence of war. It means ‘wholeness’, life in all its fulness, life as God originally intended it to be.

So God is reaching out to us in Jesus today and wanting to bring these things into our lives. I may be facing an enemy that’s far too big for me; nowadays these enemies are often inside us, rather than outside. Perhaps it’s a sense of guilt because of what I know I’ve done. Perhaps it’s an inability to get free from bad habits that are poisoning my life. Perhaps it’s a fear that’s holding me back from being all that God dreams for me to be. Whatever it is, I can bring that to Jesus the Saviour, the one who saves and delivers and sets free, and ask for his help. It’s too big for me, but it’s not too big for God. As I get to know the God who Jesus reveals to me, he will lead me into wholeness of life.

Not that we can guarantee that our diseases will always be healed. It would be wrong for us to imply this. Sometimes, yes, prayers are offered to God and dramatic answers seem to come our way. At other times, the trouble in our lives is not taken away, but we seem to receive a sense of God’s presence, the strength to walk through our troubles with him, and the hope that in the ultimate future all will be well, on the day when God restores the whole of creation to the ‘shalom’, the wholeness, that was his original plan before evil invaded his good creation.

That element of hope for the future also appears in this story, in a subtle way. When Jesus goes into the house where the girl has died, he says to the people, “The child is not dead but sleeping” (v.40). Understandably, they laugh at him – they’ve been there, and they know that she’s dead! But Jesus is using a word that became very important for the early Christians. When they talked about a fellow-Christian who had died, they often used the phrase ‘She’s fallen asleep in Jesus’. And they did this, of course, because sleep is temporary, and the early Christians believed that death was temporary as well. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, one day we will be raised too. So when you read this story, it isn’t meant to be just an exciting miracle story for you; you’re meant to read it with a thrill of anticipation. “That’s me lying there; one day I, to, am going to hear the voice of the Son of God saying ‘Wake up!’”

Through Jesus, God is wanting to set us free from things that are too big for us; he’s wanting to restore us to wholeness of life and give us hope for the future. Now, finally, what attitudes do we need to cultivate in order to be able to enjoy these things? Three attitudes:

The first attitude is a sense of desperation. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous reads, ‘We realised that we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable’. No one can begin to be delivered from their addiction in the AA program without first accepting that they can’t do it by themselves, and that this is a life and death matter. And as a Christian, I need to cultivate that sense of desperation too.

Jairus was desperate for his daughter to be healed; the woman was desperate to be made well after twelve years of chronic illness. What about me? Am I desperate, for instance, to be set free from the sinful habit patterns that hurt me and hurt the people around me? It’s when I cry out to God, “God, I’ve tried, I really have, but nothing seems to work!” – that’s when we put ourselves in a place where we’re really open to the power and love of God in Christ.

The second attitude is faith. Both of these folks show their faith – Jairus, by risking the condemnation of his peers to ask for help, and the woman, by risking everything to go out and touch the rabbi. Her faith is a bit superstitious, but Jesus honours it anyway. And I need to cultivate an attitude of faith, too – remembering that it’s faith in God that’s needed, not faith in the strength of my faith! It’s not about gazing desperately into my navel asking ‘Do I have enough faith?’ Rather, it’s about looking at my problem in relationship to the love and power of the God who made the universe: it may be too big for me, but it’s not too big for him.

We need a sense of desperation, and we need faith. Finally, we need a willingness to risk. Both Jairus and the woman risked being condemned by their peers, but they didn’t care what people thought of them; their sense of need was just too big. So often, Christians are paralysed by the fear of what others think of them. We have to be willing to let that go, and just step forward and ask for God’s help.

It’s a wonderful thing to experience the touch of God. It doesn’t usually happen every day – it tends to be a transformational experience, one that we look back on with gratitude and wonder for years afterwards. That gratitude and wonder is well expressed in the words of an old Gospel song that goes like this:
He touched me! Oh, he touched me!
And oh, the joy that fills my soul!
Something happened, and I know,
He touched me, and made me whole!”
May it be so for all of us today. Amen.